I recall my Dad doing a “reading sermon” when I was a kid. When our church in Blyth, Ontario, was vacant the elders had to take a turn finding a sermon from the Living Word booklet and reading it to the congregation. I still remember Dad “practicing” his sermon behind the closed living room door. Dad did his task with utmost seriousness. Reading the sermon was a holy ecclesiastical duty.
The very first sermon I ever “preached” was a reading sermon. I was still in my early twenties and my elders asked me at my home visitation if there was anything in the church that needed improving. I said, “We need better sermon readers when the minister is away.”
Some two weeks later the elders asked if I would like to try my hand at it. I couldn’t say no. I recall that sermon well. My text was from Paul’s letter to the Corinthians, “We preach Christ crucified!” Since I had to do better than my elders I recall memorizing that sermon from beginning to end. That divine experience confirmed my call to ministry.
Preaching and sermons is my life blood. When I was asked to serve on the Living Word Committee of the denomination I could not resist. It has been a privilege to serve for the past seven years.
The Living Word Committee came into existence in 1939 when Classis Sioux Center and Classis Pella sent overtures to Synod with the request “that a Committee be appointed to supply various churches with sermons suitable for ‘reading services’.”
Over the years our ministry has changed a lot. Originally our sermons were printed in small booklets. Two volumes were printed in 1940 with 10 sermons each. Now our sermons are available on the denominational website. You can access them at www.crcna.org under “Resources.” We have sermons from all over the Bible addressing all sorts of topics and special occasions—including Christmas and Easter. We even have sermons based on the Heidelberg Catechism.
The first members of the Living Word Committee were M. Monsma, J. Vander Ploeg and D. Hoitinga. Our current Committee members are Colin Vander Ploeg, John Noordhof, Kory Plockmeyer, and myself. I currently serve as chair and secretary. Every four months committee members search high and low for pastors willing to submit a sermon. Sermons are sent to me for the final edit. I forward them to Ministry Support Services, who put the sermons on the CRC website.
Our goal is to submit 27 sermons per year. Our task, however, is becoming increasingly difficult. Many pastors don’t write manuscripts anymore—certainly not documents of 2000 words which our Guidelines require. We use to require 2500 words but today that request is almost impossible.
Also, sermons for the website require generic content for broad application but few preachers these days write such “all-purpose” sermons. Today’s congregations expect specificity and concrete application.
And then there is the issue of usage. Ministry Support Services notes that there is a lot of traffic on the website. But are vacant churches using our resources for reading sermons—which is why the Living Word Committee was created in the first place?
In the fall of 2014 our committee conducted a short survey within the denomination. Only 180 of the 1,103 churches responded. We were not sure what to make of the poor response. Is our ministry so small that even our survey is not worth the consideration? Results from the survey itself were also revealing. Only 28 churches, for example, expect to use our sermons for reading services one to three times within the next three years.
We are confident that our ministry has served churches well in the past, but the time has come for us to consider closing it down. That’s our recommendation to Synod 2015.
Although we do this with some regret it’s not like vacant churches won’t have access to sermons anymore. There are plenty of fine well-written Reformed sermons available elsewhere—especially online. And it’s not like we plan to shut everything down. Our committee is recommending that Synod maintain the website for the foreseeable future. And our further hope is that Calvin Seminary and the Center for Excellence in Preaching make available other trusted quality sermons for the churches.
It is noteworthy that my call to ministry was confirmed when I did my first reading sermon back in my hometown of Blyth in the 1980s. That experience helped to shape me. I thank my elders for giving me the opportunity to bring the word!
We need to encourage our youth today to try their hand at leading worship, reading Scripture and trying a sermon. May God continue to use our denomination’s sermon resources— and all the many other resources available — to equip and train God’s people for acts of service.